The sport of love

Combining elements of film noir, murder-mystery and social-class drama, writer and director Woody Allen has made his best film since 1999’s “Sweet and Lowdown.” And while “Match Point” is nowhere near a masterpiece in the Allen canon, the film at least returns the director to some of his best and most familiar ground.

Set in modern-day London and starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson, “Match Point” uses the character of Chris Wilton (Rhys-Meyers) to explore the relationship of luck to one’s success in the world. Wilton, a former tennis pro who is out of a job and attempting to find his way in life, stumbles into the Hewett family early on in the picture. After joining on as a tennis instructor at a high society club, Wilton meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), an attractive, charming, well-to-do young man. Hewett immediately takes to Wilton, inviting him to the opera and various family engagements. At one particular event, Wilton meets his future wife, Chloe (played by the lovely Emily Mortimer). At another, he meets Tom’s fiancee, Nola Rice (Johansson).

However, for Chris and for the viewer, all is not what it seems. Wilton is swept up in Nola’s allure and before long the two are playing a game of “who moves first.”

Allen uses the lust that develops between Chris and Nola as a means of splitting the film wide open. While Chris is inching ever closer to “becoming” a Hewett (he takes a job working for Chloe’s father, who helps the young couple with their finances), he is also walking straight into the classic illicit-affair-in-a-motion-picture-trap that has shaken many a leading male’s honor and resolve. Both the affair and its fallout are inevitable, and Allen seems to revel in the drama that they produce.

Had the film been better written, the drama would have made for some damn fine moviemaking. Unfortunately, Allen’s flair for realistic and moving dialogue has decreased over time. Often in “Match Point,” when the viewer is supposed to be moved or shocked by a given situation (take the scene in which Chris and Nola argue in Nola’s bedroom over their future, for instance), one is simply left bored. Johansson never seems comfortable in her role as the self-serving home wrecker with low self-esteem. Rhys-Meyers is far too tame. Meld this with worn-out speeches, antiquated views of society (an entire film set in London and there’s only one black person?) and one of the lamest visuals that Allen has ever produced (the scene in which Chris and Nola initially consummate their affair is something straight out of a bad novel) and you have a film that misses more often that it hits.

Moreover, the film’s denouement – which could have saved the piece – is a poorly edited, badly timed, unrealistic snoozefest that moves at the pace of a tortoise.

It’s a shame. Allen is pulling from a lot of good films here: Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” springs immediately to mind. Combine Renoir’s masterpiece with anything half-decent from the noir genre and you have the bones of “Match Point.” Seventeen years ago, Allen could give us “Crimes and Misdemeanors” with this same skeleton. Now he gives us “Match Point.” At least it’s not “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.”